If we want to build up strong muscles, we assume we've got to hit the gym and lift some weights. But what if we want to strengthen our brains? Try meditation, according to a recent study.
In the study, published in the journal NeuroImage, UCLA neuroscientist Eileen Luders and her colleagues compared the brains of 22 people who had practiced various forms of meditation—for anywhere from five to nearly 50 years—with the brains of 22 people (of similar ages and education levels) who had never practiced any kind of meditation. Using a brain imaging technique that allowed them to view changes across the entire brain, the researchers looked to see if any particular brain regions were bigger in one group or the other.
They found that two brain regions were bigger in the meditators than in the non-meditators, while non-meditators showed no advantage in any brain region. The regions that had greater volume in the meditators have both been linked to our ability to manage our emotions; one of them, the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobes of the brain, near the ears, has also been found to play a role in our skills of attention. Additionally, the authors found evidence that meditation may actually improve the hippocampus' ability to grow new neurons into adulthood, which may be particularly important to keeping our brains sharp as we age.
Previous studies have shown that an active meditation practice is associated with a stronger ability to regulate one's behavior and emotions, and with reductions in physical and psychological symptoms of illness. With this study, Luders and her colleagues have found further evidence for these links, down to the neural level. They note that more research in this area is necessary before they can draw any definite conclusions. But they argue that if effects of meditation are linked to the particular brain changes they observed, then meditators are strengthening the brain regions necessary for the "singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior
For more tips on how to strengthen your brain, check out Jill Suttie's Greater Good article this month, "How to Keep Your Brain Young (Even as You Grow Old)."